Op-Ed: From nonviolent social movements to armed conflicts: How Abiy’s rule pushed youths from the city to the bush in Amhara and Oromia

Youths displaying the Oromo protest gesture during Irreechaa festival in 2016 (Photo:Reuters)

By Milkessa M. Gemechu (PhD) @milkessam

Addis Abeba – The peace talks that began on 07 November, 2023 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the federal government of Ethiopia formally ended on 21 November, 2023 without any deal for the second time. It has been five years since the military confrontations broke out between the two forces. In this piece, I will shed light on how a promising nonviolent social movement in the history of Ethiopia which began in Oromia and later on expanded to the Amhara region unexpectedly transformed into armed conflicts.

Before Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, Amhara and Oromia regions were home to pro-democracy nonviolent social movements. More specifically, the Oromo protests (2014-2018) and Amhara resistance (2016-2018) caused major division and rift within the ruling coalition, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was forced to launch what it called “tilk tehadiso” (deep reform) in 2017. This led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who was replaced by Abiy Ahmed. In both regions, people were enthusiastic about the power transfer hoping that Prime Minister Abiy would transition the country to democracy. Rather than launching a democratization wave, Abiy caused the wave of polarized politics and helped the creation and expansion of armed insurgencies and violent conflicts in Amhara and Oromia. I will explain this.   

In recent history, spontaneous youth protests in Oromia have been seen as normal extracurricular responsibilities of high school and college students since 1992. However, the movement changed its organizational networks and tactics following the announcement of the infamous Addis Ababa integrated master plan in 2014 which was first opposed by Oromia regional officials and then followed by large scale nonviolent movements across Oromia. The demands of the new wave of movements in the region rose from a narrow protest against the capital city master plan to demanding a complete state transformation by 2016 during which Amhara youths made it to the streets publicly joining the democratic movements in Oromia.

Thousands of Amhara youths protested in Gonder in 2016 with one of their demands being ‘the killing in Oromia region to stop’ (Photo: Social Media)

Following this symbolic alliance of nonviolent movements in both regions, the ruling parties of Oromia and Amhara, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) led by Lemma Megersa and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) led by Gedu Andargachew, respectively, agreed to transform this youth alliances to a political alliance called “Oromara.” The idea of Oromara was popularized to undermine the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) hegemony in the ruling EPRDF coalition. Lemma-led Oromia and Gedu-led Amhara regions were seen as pro-reform and became protesting regions. That gave power to the social movements further creating split within the ruling coalition which propelled Abiy Ahmed to the leadership of the EPRDF and Ethiopia. By the way, both Lemma and Gedu are sidelined from Abiy-led government in both regions and now silenced one after the other. Let us discuss why Abiy lost support in Oromia and Amhara one after the other.    

The birth of Prosperity Party (PP) in 2019, following the announcement of Medemer –Abiy’s personal politico-social belief—as the guiding principle of the state and society administration in Ethiopia, was instrumental for Abiy to divide Amhara and Oromo elites.  With the creation of PP, Abiy began to lose the supports of Oromo youths (Qeerroo) and Oromo elites but he gained more support from Amhara youths (Fanno) and Amhara elites. Therefore, PP’s formation served as a watershed for the divergence of Amhara youths and Oromo youths. Abiy succeeded in dividing the two forces. Amhara youths and elites considered Abiy’s massive counter-movement for dissolving “ethnic”-based political parties as a blessing and endorsed him, whereas Oromo youths and elites rejected Abiy’s move. As a result, Gedu Andargachew sided the creation of Abiy’s PP while Lemma Megersa who was unconstitutionally ousted from his presidency of Oromia, had to oppose the move. Abiy subsequently chose to crackdown against Oromo youths and opponents of his new party both within and outside the government. These all counter-revolutionary measures intensified in Oromia following the assassination in 2020 of Hachalu Hundessa, an icon and leading new generation resistance singer. The new administration of Abiy closed all political spaces that tolerated nonviolent struggles by arresting Oromo opposition figures, organizing election in August 2021, running unopposed and declaring itself the sole winner in Oromia restoring a complete single party rule in the region.  As a result, the Oromo youths were left with no option and they were forced to consider as the last resort, armed insurgency.

 In the Amhara region, Abiy continued to enjoy youth and elite support until the November 2022 Pretoria Agreement between Tigray forces and the Federal Government. The Amhara elites backed Abiy’s war in Tigray for territorial and ideological reasons. As a result of this symbiotic relationship, all abled Amhara youths were officially summoned by a regional war decree called “kitat” or march against Tigray forces. That “kitat” call for war and subsequent mobilization and militarization transformed Amhara youths (Fanno) from nonviolence to one of armed insurgencies. The initial goal of militarizing Fanno was to get their support against Tigrayan forces. The war has caused Fano Amhara forces and Eritrean forces to jointly occupy western Tigray, for which both forces are internationally accused of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing

Oromia’s version of an all-out war—kitat was adopted by the region’s legislative body—Caffee Proclamation no.245/2022 which established Gachana Sirna (meaning “Shield of the New Regime”) in March 2022. The primary target of this local militia styled paramilitary called Gachana Sirna was not Tigrayan forces but the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The proclamation made mandatory to all abled youths in Oromia upon request to join the Gachana Sirna and fight against rebel forces in Oromia and beyond. Oromo youths were trapped in between two options—forcibly serving Gachana Sirna or voluntarily joining the OLA. There was no third way—nonviolent option—in the region. The concept of “kitat” in Amhara and Oromia diverged in its end goal. But in both cases, it militarized the youths and created conducive environments for armed conflicts.      

Due to the political and military support that Abiy enjoyed from Amhara region during the Tigray war, some Amhara forces such as Amhara National Movement (ANM) were appeased with a handful of federal and regional legislative and executive seats by the August 2021 general election. This gesture of appeasement did not last long due to Abiy’s desire to centralize his power in Amhara region too following the implementation of the ceasefire in Tigray in November 2022 as discussed shortly.       

The social movement in the Amhara region initially attempted to get institutionalized in 2018 when the Amhara National Movement was created. In the case of Oromia, the Qeerroo movement trusted in the OPDO which changed its name to the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) in 2018 believing that Abiy would be willing to facilitate a founding election to transition the country to democracy. When it became clear to them that Abiy was unwilling to democratize the state-society relationship and instead determined to establish his own new dictatorship, the Oromo youths were the first to stand against Abiy. None of the Oromo demands articulated during the movement were resolved for that matter. The minimal requests such as Afaan Oromoo has not been declared the working language of the federal government; and the constitutional special interest of the state of Oromia in Addis Ababa remain legally pending.

Following the Pretoria Agreement, Abiy took measures in an effort to centralize his power in the Amhara region. To this end, he attempted to dissolve the special police forces and disarm Fanno paramilitary organization which helped him during the war in Tigray. This served as a turning point for the outbreak of the ongoing armed confrontations in Amhara region between Fanno and Abiy-led federal government forces. With this, the PP-led government seems successful in closing the chapters of nonviolent means of struggle and peaceful opposition in Amhara region too. Now, in the Oromia and Amhara regions, only the language of guns is heard and spoken.

Conversely, if Abiy Ahmed did not initiate his medemer to create PP, but rather committed himself to his promises of democratization of Ethiopian state, instead of wars and armed insurgencies, youth-dominated peaceful political parties and civil societies could have possibly mushroomed in Oromia, Amhara and across the country. We could have seen different Ethiopia.

Down the road, if there is any vision to restore peace in Ethiopia, layers of negotiations in different regions with different conflicting parties, I believe, are imperative. Peace could only come to Ethiopia if it is restored in each region first. The solution for the problem in the Amhara region may not come from Addis Ababa. Yes, it should come from the Amhara region itself. The solution for the problem in Oromia may not be found in the Menelik palace in Addis Ababa. The same is true for Tigray, Somali, Sidama and other regions. This would lead to the necessity of some kind of asymmetrical federal arrangements for sustainable peace in Ethiopia. It means, give back more political autonomy to those regions fighting for more autonomy. For sure, the traditional way of governing Ethiopia through a centralized administration of one-man rule from the capital city is unthinkable. AS

Editor’s Note: Milkessa M. Gemechu (PhD) is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Albion College in the US. He can be reached at mgemechu@albion.edu 
The views expressed in this article are solely of the writer and do not reflect JAKENN’s editorial stand.

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